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Letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge

The Honorable Tom Ridge
Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528

Dear Secretary Ridge:

I am writing to express concern about a trend that threatens the quality of research and scholarship emerging from our universities. National statistics show that the number of foreign scholars seeking to study in the United States has declined significantly over the past two years, and Harvard’s own data suggest that we, like other schools in the country, are at risk of losing some of our most promising scholars to universities in other parts of the world.

I recognize the challenges you face in addressing the significant security issues that confront our nation, and I appreciate the swift and substantial steps you have taken to make our country a safer place. However, to put it simply, I fear that one of the unintended consequences of certain new visa requirements is the decline in the number and potential quality of scholars willing to study in the United States. If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation.

This year at Harvard, applications from international students are down significantly, as they are across the country. Each of Harvard’s nine faculties has reported a sharp drop in applications from international students this year. Applications from Chinese students alone declined as much as 40% in some of our graduate programs. The anecdotal evidence is equally compelling. Faculty from around the university tell repeated stories of talented foreign students opting to study in Europe or Australia, for example, rather than the United States, because of the protracted visa process. During a recent visit to Chile and Brazil, many promising students and scholars informed me that they no longer felt welcome in our country.

Once here, foreign students too often fear leaving the country because visa problems have prevented others from returning in time to resume work or classes. In one case, a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry and molecular biology here at Harvard flew home to attend the funeral of his father in Beijing, and then wasted five months waiting for permission to return–long after another postdoctoral fellow was hired to take over his project. His experience seems all too common.

As you are no doubt aware, Harvard is not the only university facing this problem. According to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools, 90% of schools surveyed experienced a decrease in graduate-school applications from international students this year. The drop in the number of applications from Chinese and Indian students is particularly striking. A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study appears to confirm our sense that the decline is caused, at least in part, by the protracted and often unpredictable visa process. Indeed, the GAO study concluded that there are no standard procedures for maintaining data or tracking visa cases, and the agencies and departments responsible for international students do not have an effective way to communicate with one another.

Although I recognize the complexity of keeping this country safe, I believe that there are some fairly straightforward and easily implemented ways to improve the visa system without compromising enhanced security measures. For example, it is worth considering allowing potential students to seek a security pre-clearance, or reestablishing a procedure for foreign students and scholars already in the United States to initiate the visa clearance process before traveling abroad. I appreciate that the issue has many dimensions, however, and would therefore welcome the opportunity for a direct dialogue with the appropriate officials in the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Toward that end, I have also written to Secretary Powell about our concerns.

I would welcome the opportunity to work with you to help address these issues. As you indicated in your recent letter to university presidents, the success of our efforts in this area depends on cooperation between universities and the federal government. While I recognize that security threats require protective measures, I am concerned that America’s position at the forefront of scholarship and discovery is threatened by the serious decline in international scholars seeking to study at universities in the United States.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence H. Summers